After a day of difficult negotiations among Republican legislators, a split state Senate on Wednesday failed to reach an agreement on repealing House Bill 2, bringing an abrupt end to three days of promising efforts to put the divisive issue behind the state.
The repeal bill failed on a bipartisan vote of 32 opposed and 16 in support. Republican leaders in the House and Senate had worked all day to convince reluctant members to replace a repeal with a “cooling-off period” prohibiting local governments from regulating employment practices, public accommodations or access to restrooms, showers or changing facilities.
But that proved to be a sticking point for Senate Democrats, who were not willing to repeal HB2 at the cost of putting a moratorium on local governments. The outcome prompted an uncharacteristically angry response from Senate Leader Phil Berger, who accused Roy Cooper, the governor-elect, of pressuring Democratic senators to vote against the bill.
Berger said he felt betrayed by some of the Democrats, who had indicated they could go along with the bill.
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“I cannot believe this,” Berger said.
Sen. Harry Brown, a Republican from Jacksonville, vowed to continue working on the issue in the long session that begins in January.
“We had a great opportunity to do some good work,” he said. “Unfortunately it didn’t happen.”
Senate Democratic Leader Dan Blue criticized Gov. Pat McCrory and legislative leaders for bringing everyone back to Raleigh for a fifth special session to vote on a deal that turned out not to have support just days before Christmas.
“It was a tremendous and unfortunate abuse of our time,” Blue said.
Berger had introduced a bill that called for a six-month moratorium, but he said some senators didn’t think that was enough time to come up with long-term solutions to the discrimination issues that have been debated all year. So Berger amended the bill to extend the cooling-off period to 30 days after the legislature adjourns its long session next year, which typically runs into July or later.
Sen. Angela Bryant, a Rocky Mount Democrat, said the moratorium implied that the real goal of HB2 was to undermine employment discrimination protections, not restrict public restroom use.
When it appeared Berger’s bill was headed toward trouble, he attempted a last-ditch legislative maneuver to split it into two votes: One on the repeal and the other on the moratorium. The first vote, on the repeal, failed and that killed the entire bill.
Sixteen Republican senators joined Democrats in defeating the bill, including Sen. Chad Barefoot of Wake County, and Sen. Ronald Rabin of Harnett and Lee counties.
All eyes had been on the House, where the repeal bill was expected to emerge. Members of the GOP caucus met for four hours Tuesday night and at least five hours Wednesday behind closed doors. Efforts to unify the caucus to repeal HB2 were bogged down by legislators who either supported the current law or were concerned that Charlotte’s city council wasn’t being straightforward about its intentions.
The Charlotte City Council without notice on Monday said it had voted to repeal its February anti-discrimination ordinance that had led to the passage of HB2 earlier this year on condition that the General Assembly would repeal HB2 by the end of the year. McCrory called the legislature back into a Wednesday session to do that.
But on Tuesday evening it surfaced that Charlotte had not repealed its entire anti-discrimination ordinance. The city attorney said he thought the part of the ordinance that was repealed — the so-called bathroom provision — would satisfy the legislature’s concern that special accommodation not be given to those who want to use public restrooms that do not coincide with their gender at birth.
The council met early Wednesday to resolve those concerns by repealing the rest of the changes it made in February, which also prohibited discrimination in public contracts in the city.
Staff writer Colin Campbell contributed